by Zetta Elliott
During Presidents’ Week, I taught a creative writing mini-camp for eleven kids aged seven to thirteen. This was my second time teaching for Uptown Stories, and I knew I’d have a room full of engaged readers and writers. I didn’t expect to have eight boys in the class, but everyone arrived ready to talk about their favorite mythical beast! My first one-week class last summer focused on ghosts, portals, and time travel, but I actually wound up writing a medieval mystery: The Phantom Unicorn. I shared a couple of chapters with my students, incorporated their feedback, and took them on a field trip to The Cloisters so they could see my inspiration: The Unicorn Tapestries.
I grew up reading British fantasy fiction, but I didn’t really consider myself a fantasy writer. Now that I have published close to thirty books for young readers, I can see how the books I read as a child made a deep and lasting impression on my imagination. Unfortunately, when I revisited those novels as an adult, I was dismayed to find many of them contained tropes and scenes that were racist, sexist, and imperialist. I’m certainly not the first reader to love books that don’t love me back. My particular response as a writer has been to “talk back” to those texts by changing fantasy conventions to create a more just world.
In E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), five White children from London tour the British Empire and encounter scary, exotic “savages.” In the first book of my City Kids series, The Phoenix on Barkley Street, five children from racially diverse backgrounds find an ancient phoenix in the backyard of an abandoned brownstone. The phoenix helps them stand up to a local gang and the kids mobilize people in their neighborhood to create a community garden.
I loved The Secret Garden (1911) by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and so located the portal of my first time-travel novel, A Wish After Midnight, in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I’m not a fan of traditional princess narratives, but learned of a Yoruba girl of royal birth who was given as a gift to Queen Victoria in the 19th century. Aina, renamed Sarah Forbes Bonetta, was recently featured in the PBS miniseries Victoria, and she appears in City Kids Book #3, The Ghosts in the Castle (I bought this print of Sarah as a birthday gift to myself last October while visiting the National Portrait Gallery in London).
After the tragic events in Charlottesville, VA last summer, I knew I wanted to write a story that helped kids understand the value of allies and the importance of standing up for what you believe. In The Phantom Unicorn, a girl steps out of a medieval tapestry to save a bewitched unicorn. She enlists two contemporary boys, Qing Yuan and Ari, to help her banish a villain from her own era who is determined to trigger the apocalypse. The three children overcome their identity-based doubts and in the end, Gisla takes the unicorn to the Shadowlands—but not before changing its hide from white to black.
All of my fantasy novels address social issues, though my priority is telling an engaging story. Dragons in a Bag (which comes out from Random House in October) blames the lack of magic in Brooklyn on gentrification. I think mythical beasts generate almost instant sympathy in young readers. Kids today have grown up knowing that humans have brought countless creatures to the brink of extinction. When my students wrote their stories last week, they pushed back against stereotypes and gave their “monster” a human ally/protector. One boy wrote about a world where zombies were separated from the living by a wall until two friends found a way to tear it down. Another girl wrote about a baby witch who was adopted by a human family; when her witch mother came back to claim her, they decided to form a blended family. Another young writer used her story to advocate for environmental justice and an end to animal cruelty. Fantasy fiction doesn’t only offer an escape from reality. It can also help us to envision a more just world.
I have trouble embracing the title activist, but for nearly a decade I have actively advocated for greater diversity and equity in children’s literature. We don’t just need more inclusive titles for kids to read, we need to talk about how dominance in the publishing industry makes true equality impossible. When I present in schools, I start by telling kids about how books get published. They then understand why, after years of rejection, I finally decided to make my own books. Kids don’t care whether a book is self-published or from a corporate press—they just want a good story to read. But reviewers, librarians, booksellers, and other adult gatekeepers often exclude indie authors like me. If we’re committed to diversity and equity, we have to be open to the different way books can be produced, especially when writers of color continue to be dismissed by traditional publishers.
When I’m not teaching or traveling, you can usually find me propped up on the sofa with my laptop. The TV or radio might be on, and every so often I get up and pace the apartment to ensure that I hit my 10K daily step goal. This picture of my desk shows my attempt to keep myself organized…I have an endless To Do list, a list of outstanding payments I need to chase down, a list of poems yet to be written for my latest collection, and a calendar with my gigs for the next three months. I rarely write outside my home but sometimes I get good writing done in hotels. I’m heading to Scotland next week and look forward to speaking in person with Elizabeth! Thanks for giving me this opportunity to share my work.
e: Can't wait to see you, Zetta! And THIS is what a writer's desk should look like!